Two-way traffic

Published 10 November 2011 05:02, Updated 24 November 2011 05:18

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International travel can be a rich source of inspiration for creative professions, such as architecture and engineering, as most Australians know.

It works both ways. HVDN Architecture, based in Amsterdam, has been inspired by visits to the gentrified inner-city Melbourne suburbs of Fitzroy and Carlton to suggest a new approach to urban developments in the Netherlands’ capital.

It’s played a big part in the 30 per cent increase in revenue the company achieved this calendar year, Arie van der Neut, a co-founder of HVDN, says.

This is a possible threat to Australian companies, or an opportunity. Already, HVDN is talking to local practices about collaborating on local projects.

The idea of mixed-use urban development is foreign to the Dutch. Typically, they build large residential blocks with 300-500 apartments each. Mostly, this is “social housing”, in which tenants are means-tested and then pay a fraction of the market rent. Developers sometimes took 20 years to recover their investment but new rules mean they need a shorter return-on-investment times.

HVDN’s proposals to build new precincts in stages, selling one stage to fund the next, has been a godsend to developers scratching their heads about how to adapt. The staged approach has kept the practice and its 24 directors, associates and architects, busy. The HVDN practice is in the western suburbs of Amsterdam. “This area is one not doing well,” van der Neut says. “Poor people live here, many from foreign countries. But we are very connected with urban problems, so we thought let’s go where the problems are. We are quite involved with the neighbourhood, and we work with the city [local] council to improve it.”

However, the debt crisis in Europe and the impact of the first global financial crisis in 2008 are driving many European practices to look overseas for work.

With overseas expansion in mind, Van der Neut and co-founder Albert Herder have formed a joint venture, Studio Ninedots, with young architects Vincent van der Klei and Metin van Zijl. Although early expansion has been in Europe – Paris, London and Milan – HVDN is hoping to win work in Australia on the back of its specialist knowledge about relocatable buildings.

HVDN has won five projects to build customised relocatable buildings. Although they are built to be demountable, their working life is at least 25 years, van der Neut says.

HVDN prefers to work in partnership in countries outside the Netherlands. “We make coalitions; we always have,” he says. “That is the way we did it in Paris. The building process involves a lot of communication and it is complicated. Although [Paris] seems close to us, the culture is different. You need someone who understands the little differences.”

In Australia, HVDN hopes to form a partnership with the Melbourne office of architects, Hassell. “We are in discussions with HVDN,” principal Mark Loughnan says. “We work across a broad spectrum of projects. Schools are ... the main application for relocatable buildings. But we are also looking at modular housing and building new communities, such as mining.”

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